Miss Nightingale, The Vaults

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By guest critic Alistair Wilkinson

Fly to the front line. Sing some songs. Win the war. Live happily ever after. Sounds easy, right? That’s the idyllic goal that two queers, an unmarried mother and an unborn child feel in Matthew Bugg’s dreamy production of Miss Nightingale. This gorgeous depiction of 1940’s Britain hits you right in the feels and pulls on all heartstrings. The set provides an intimate cabaret club vibe, decorated with posters stating memorable lines from the wonderful songs that are performed throughout.

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The Doppel Gang, Tristan Bates Theatre

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By an anonymous guest critic

If you’re a Marx Brothers fan like myself, you might go to this production by the company JUST SOME THEATRE with some trepidation. Are these four performers going to do justice to the Brother’s brilliant form of slapstick comedy? It’s nice to report that the answer is yes. The company’s attempt to create new Marx Brothers material is actually the strongest part of this show.

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Scorched, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Jack, feeble in body and mind, wiles away the days watching news broadcasts from operation Desert Storm. The former WWII soldier, now safe and looked after in a care home, vividly recounts memories from his youth and on the front line. He may not be aware of the present, but his past is ever present and will not let me rest. Solo show Scorched is a moving and honest look at veterans’ experiences of combat and ageing, leaving the troubling feeling that society is not fulfilling its responsibility to this vulnerable demographic.

Lisle Turner’s script, inspired by her grandfather’s life, is an expressionistic snapshot of his thoughts at the twilight of his life. Stationed in Egypt during the war, we hear tales of heat, explosions, and beautiful women interspersed with memories from his childhood. The storyline is loosely constructed; it is episodic rather than wholly linear. This structure works well considering that these are Jack’s memories he plays out for himself rather than for an audience arbitrarily included in the action without being allocated any clear identity.

There are some beautiful design elements: Jack remembers tattooing himself and this is projected on his arm rather than shown with makeup. To see something normally considered permanent conveyed through an ephemeral form is a fitting reminder that nothing truly lasts forever and Jack is nearly at the end of his life. The loveliest of other whimsical projections is on a cascade of sand poured from a dinner tray. This sand is everywhere, like the memories that cling onto Jack’s deteriorating mind and are constantly discovered in unsuspecting places – a clever device either by Turner or director Claire Coache. A simple puppet is used well but not enough, as are mundane objects that transform into others more exciting – an umbrella becomes a fishing rod, a footstool is a motorbike. This object manipulation is a lovely surprise and suits Jack’s mental state well, so it could be utilised further to comment on the childhood of old age.

Robin Berry plays Jack with power and pathos, initially with a delicate frailty that gives way to a younger, more powerful man who enjoys boxing, horse riding, dancing and defending his country. Berry has a strong physical presence that is eminently watchable and a range that makes him believe both as the older and younger Jack.

Strengthening and streamlining the staging and theatrical devices will help make the script feel less like a random collection of memories, and reordering some of scenes would also have the same effect. Jack is a fantastic character and the play is a fitting tribute to elderly veterans, though also serves to pay homage to a generation that soon will no longer be with us.

Scorched runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Lady Pamela More covers fashion and socialites for The Times and she has no interest in any other topic. As Britain’s involvement in the war becomes certain, her disinterest in politics and international affairs wanes, and her social circles are split into those who support Germany and those who believe the whispered stories coming across the channel. With newfound purpose and contacts, the use of her journalistic skills changes direction to a more practical use – she is recruited to spy on Britain’s elite.

Sarah Sigal reinvents Pamela from her 2014 Park Theatre play World Enough and Time, now making the character the primary subject of a solo performance. Reprised by Rebecca Dunn, Pamela recounts her wartime adventures through past-tense narration and dialogue between herself and impersonated peers. She meets and watches real people from British history, moulding a clear perspective of their wartime activities – this is the most interesting aspect of the narrative. Who the audience is, or why she is telling us her story is never made clear, though. Her tale is interesting enough, but what is it’s point?

The scenes Dunn enacts are more dynamic than the stretches of narration that span the years surrounding the war. She employs accents and an impressive vocal range to differentiate between herself and those she converses with, often with charm and humour. Her storytelling is good enough to maintain attention, but as no moral or message emerges from the text, the ambiguity of the script dwarfs Dunn’s ability.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More suits a written format much more so than a staged one – it would make a lovely novella what with its detailed description of the setting and characters involved. Though its well performed and a good story in and of itself, theatricality gets in the way, making this solo performance piece fall flat.

Agent of Influence: The Secret Life of Pamela More runs through 28th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Savage, Arts Theatre

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Denmark in the mid-1930s was a great place to be if you were gay. Homosexuality was legalized in 1933 and a thriving club scene allowed gay men to meet and socialize publicly. But as the dark cloud of National Socialism swept Europe, safety became more precarious. Dr Carl Vaernet was one of their threats. A practicing GP with an interest in hormone therapy, the Danish Nazi Party member soon captured the attention of party higher ups with his therapies that he claimed cured homosexuality. Hired to cure gay prisoners at Buchenwald late in the war, he experimented on seventeen inmates before the war ended and he escaped to Argentina.

Claudio Macor’s latest play Savage focuses more on the story of Nikolai and his American boyfriend Zack than Dr Vaernet, but the lovers are soon separated and Nik becomes one of the doctor’s victims. The emerging subplot of an SS officer and his secret, gay love slave quickly becomes just as important as Nik and Zack, making Savage more of a play about homosexuality in WWII than specifically about Dr Vaernet and his horrific medical experiments. Spanning several years and multiple narratives, the script, sadly, doesn’t give in-depth attention to any particular character; individual stories are disrupted and incomplete. This would be a much more compelling text if Macor focused attention on one primary character rather than taking a scattergun approach. All of these characters have potential to steer a rich, interesting play that focuses on them, but none of them get the full, individual attention they deserve. There are some great set piece scenes, but the overall structure lacks focus.

Some of the performances are inconsistent and the cast present a range of styles, which distracts from the seriousness of the plot. There are a few good performances, though. Gary Fannin cuts a cold, scientific Dr Vaernet with a clear disgust for gay people; this professional face of homophobia and calm hatred is a most chilling one indeed. Emily Lynne as the doctor’s nurse viciously opposes the Nazis and blatantly defies their rules in a display of ferocious persistence. She’s a great contrast to the doctor’s calm hatred. The two pairs of lovers have moments of genuine care for each other, whereas other times feel forced.

Jamie Attle’s costumes are sharp and detailed, whilst David Shields’ set of rotating panels clarify location but are a bit clumsy. Macor also directs, ensuring his political messages get across but an additional pair of eyes could have developed more intimacy between the couples.

Though the topic is most serious indeed, there’s a distinct lack of joy in the beginning cabaret scene and between Nik and Zack. Macor clearly wants to raise awareness of the horrors of Vaernet’s work, but some lighter moments of exposition would emphasise this further. A dramaturg would not go amiss in order to streamline the script and performance styles in future productions, but this premier still has potential and exposes a historical figure too easily forgotten amidst more prominent Nazi war criminals.

Savage runs through 23 July.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

To Kill a Machine, King’s Head Theatre

To Kill a Machine: Scriptography Productions

How well can you condense Alan Turing’s life and work into one hour? Considering his technologically groundbreaking career, WWII code breaking and conviction for crimes of gross indecency, that’s a lot of source material for precious little time. Catrin Fflur Huws chooses to focus on the man behind the achievements at various pivotal points in his life for To Kill a Machine. From boarding school days to chemical castration shortly before his death, Huws shows the relationships rather than the events that shaped his life. Scenes of naturalism are interspersed with a surreal, presentational game show indicating the factors outside of Turing’s control that dictate his unfortunate fate at the hands of discrimination. Though stylistically dynamic, they are less compelling than the latter. Together, they make a good whole but with so much missing from Turing’s life, the highlights contained in To Kill a Machine shortchange the story of such an important man.

In the centre of a round platform, a wiry, mechanical tree by designer Cordielia Ashwell sprouts important mementos from Turing’s life: a photograph of Christopher, his first love at school, pages of indecipherable code, and the apple that he may or may not have used to kill himself. Its trunk is also a convenient place to store props and costume, but the visual aspect is the most dominant, and strikingly so. The symbol of life manifested in an everlasting, sculptural form against the items that were his downfall is powerful image.

The tree also dictates circular movements from the cast of four, most prominent in the game show scenes and Turing’s sex with his younger lover, Arnold Murray, who eventually betrays him – the moments where his life spirals irrevocably out of control. Alan’s eventual tethering to the tree via medical equipment during his “treatment” is a horrible,  effective reminder of history’s handing of people discovered to be gay and sapping their life force with discriminatory legislation.

Gwydion Rhys as Alan Turing is the anchor in the cast, with a nuanced and sensitive performance that leaves Benedict Cumberbatch’s generic interpretation in the dust. He is complimented well by intimate scenes with François Pandolfo as his school friend Christopher, and older brother John giving him advice in the run up the trial. This latter scene is by far the best in the play.

Though the script is good, it’s short length is unsatisfying and otherwise dwarfed by the performances and design. The structure works as does the lens with which it views Turing’s life, but surely there is more than an hour’s worth of material on the man behind the life-changing mathematician and inventor.

To Kill A Machine runs through 23 April.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Goodnight Mister Tom, Duke of York’s Theatre

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The WWII image of dejected, scrappy children with brown tags around their necks, clutching their most precious belongings as they are re-homed with strangers in the countryside is a powerful one. It’s one that inspired author Michelle Magorian to write Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood for the stage, now in London after a successful run at Chichester and before heading off for a national tour. The audience meets little William, who is sent from Deptford to Dorset and assigned to live with the reclusive Tom Oakley. With a focus on Tom more so than the relocated children, this is a story about finding love again after a devastating loss. This part of the production is moving, but the story is slow to develop over a long time period and the flimsy, thin dialogue doesn’t support the large cast of characters, their development and the devastation of wartime.

David Troughton as Tom is a sad and sensitive widower, the complete opposite of the grump that his fellow villagers see. Three Williams, three Zachs (William’s precocious evacuee friend) and a gaggle of children make up half the cast; all are very much child actors. Alex Taylor-McDowall is today’s William, a lanky shy boy poisoned by his fundamentalist Christian single mother, Melle Stewart. We hear a lot about her, but only meet her in one scene. Stewart is unable to show just how evil (and mentally ill) the character is, though she does her best to live up to the previously discussed monster. Most of the other characters have similarly brief stage time, but plenty of multi-rolling and puppetry keeps the generally good ensemble performers busy.

But the first half takes its time to get going. It’s not from a lack of energy in individuals, but the overall pace is languid. It’s lovely and sweet, but flat. The war seems far away from this village, country life is slow, and day-to-day life is filled with routine and little errands. It’s in these small tasks that we see Tom’s affection for William grow: getting “new” clothes for him, teaching him to read and write and fending of bullies who pick on the “townies” and “vaccies” from London.

It’s no wonder the local kids pick on the Londoners. William can’t read or write, sleeps under the bed rather than on it, and his toxic mother skewed his worldview about, well, everything. Zach is well-spoken, attention seeking and flamboyant, the son of actors. It’s interesting that the London children the audience meets are either desperately camp or from the slums in this story; does this reflect Magorian’s preconceptions?

Along with Troughton’s performance, the puppets are outstanding. Tom’s dog, Sammy (Elisa de Grey) is gorgeously constructed, and full of movement and life from de Grey’s work. After the interval, there’s an increase in momentum after an unnecessary subplot involving William’s return to London and the effects of war creep closer, creating more tension and loss. The audience learns more about Tom’s past and the ending is a tearjerker and concise resolution.

For a family show however, the whole thing is too long and convoluted. Tom and William’s story could have easily had more focus with a reduction of other characters, more fleshed out scenes and additional detail about Tom’s life leading up to the point he takes in William. Fortunately, Troughton has enough stage time to keep this otherwise lovely, but flat, production going.

Press ticket for Goodnight Mister Tom is courtesy of theatrebloggers.co.uk.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.